Monday, April 29, 2013

TRULY (inspired by Persuasion) chapter eleven: "New Days - six years later"

Chapter Eleven
New Days – Six years later 
I turned the pages of the newspaper, spread across the kitchen table, immersed in the headlines, stunned but not surprised to see my family’s name embroiled in financial scandal…  Confessions of a Post-teenage Hermit
     I’d found that note when I packed up my things. My secret engagement had been so long ago it was largely forgotten by everyone except me.
     My teaching assistant’s job had officially ended for the summer (and because I was only employed on contract I had no pay to go on vacation). My bank account, aligned with the family trust – the place I’d allowed my father to invest my share of the family savings and assets, was tied up in debt, frozen. It would be months before we knew the outcome of the investigation into the director of the financial organization we’d invested with. I had exactly one month’s salary to live on – for the rest of my life.
     I was in some credit card debt (my fault from the shopping sprees I’d been encouraged to go on by my sisters) but still, it was the worst time to find a ‘real job’. There were so few vacancies and I didn’t have my degree. Unlike my older sister, Elizabeth, I didn’t panic.  I’d allowed my father to invest money my grandparents had set aside for me, years ago, and although we had not been close in recent years, even then it must have been a very unwise decision. I had to take responsibility for my actions.
      Besides, I loved The Beach Shack. Being a waitress was not the worst idea I’d ever had; it just didn’t pay well. It paid enough, almost.
      “Keep telling yourself that, Jane,” Melissa said. “You’re in your twenties now, it’s time to wake up and smell the espresso – literally.”
      I wished Melissa would keep her ‘helpful’ comments to herself. Teenage marriage had been her escape and she’d never had to consider how to earn a living since. It was typical of her to judge me for trying as hard as I could.
     I wrote out the pros and cons.
    At The Beach Shack, Keira and I get free coffee and food. I also get to sit and work on my blog before and after work and during breaks. It is wasted energy to worry about the lost deposit or the weeks I’d saved to go on the trip to Mexico, something I’d been planning for months.
    The vacay money would have to go towards my debts and credit card bills.
    Who said being an adult was fun? I threw the travel brochures away and picked up Pride and Prejudice instead. I read until early morning.
    After I fell asleep, the telephone woke me up, ringing in my ear. I thought it had been disconnected. I let it go to messages. The only way anyone communicated these days was by text anyway, unless it was urgent. I thought I’d better check. It was Melissa, my younger sister. I heard her familiar whine: twenty-one, married and newly pregnant with her third child. Her first pregnancy, two years ago, had resulted in twins.
     I could hear Melissa’s flat, monotone voice, on the other end of the line, begging me to come and stay with her in Venice Beach. Well, I liked Venice Beach but staying at her place was like a living nightmare of sulking nannies and screaming babies.
   At least she’d offered. Let’s face it, I was in no position to refuse but I knew my father and Liz were expecting me in Bel Air. I hoped it would only be until I got on my feet.
     Nevertheless, Melissa sounded pretty desperate.
     “The nanny needs the day off to go to her mother’s second wedding, so typical!” I pulled the receiver from my ear. Almost no one called me these days except my sisters, and only when they wanted something. I listened to Missy’s voice drone on, a litany of whinges ending with, “I need you here now!”
     Turns out Melissa and Fred, (Melissa’s husband), had a function at Fred’s work they couldn’t cancel and Melissa needed me to drive to the beach house and deliver the keys to Liz who’d organised the lease with the new tenants. Missy had to get ready, then she wanted me to drive back to her place and babysit her children for the evening.
     I knew it.
     I loved children but Melissa’s infant twins were the most difficult I’d ever encountered. All of her previous nannies had quit and I didn’t blame them.
    In a nutshell, my sisters and Keira are pretty much the only other “adults” I’ve spoken to in ages. How was it, I wondered, after more than twenty-one years on this earth, I’d managed to create a network of so few friends?  It hadn’t helped that I’d dropped out of college. But now, my closest acquaintances apart from my family were the convenience store operator and the lady who ran my father’s local dry–cleaning store. 
    Reluctantly, I pulled on a sweater and picked up my car keys.
    When I reached Melissa’s house near Venice Beach an hour later, I glanced at the note she’d left on her dining room table.  I had to go to the grocery store. I’m out of formula! Keys are in the red envelope. Thanks Jane! Text me when you’re done.  
    The kitchen was shambolic. The maid had quit the previous week. There were papers piled up everywhere I looked. I brushed them aside as I tried to locate the envelope, then I glanced at my reflection in the hall. I hadn’t bothered with make-up but I thought I should wash my face. Before I left, I stacked the dishwasher, scraped my hair into a ponytail, secured it with elastic and rubbed some lip balm into my lips; not very glamorous but ready to go.
    I loved driving my old car but suddenly the images of those who were lost to me in different ways – my father, Jenny, Ben – filled the small spaces in my mind that had room for any worldly cares. I was exhausted with worry yet the ocean usually revived me. I loved the coastline along the winding road that led into Wentworth. I turned up the music in my car stereo, but being alone gave me too much time to think.
    I was lucky, really, I told myself. It was just the comparison with my sisters that made me seem somehow lacking. I was hardly old, but my sisters seemed to have their lives organised on the surface. Underneath, it was a different story.
    Melissa met Fred at eighteen and married him three months later. Elizabeth was a driven career woman with a high salary and a passion for first kisses. I had it on good authority (via Melissa) that she was dating Tom Wentworth, but she didn’t want him to think she was “exclusive;” like I cared. 
   I was beginning to look like the sibling without direction, purpose or prospects. Since I hadn’t had a boyfriend who’d lasted longer than a week in three years, neither of my siblings held out high hopes for me.
     When I arrived at Kellynch, the house was lit in afternoon sun. I unlocked the door and pulled on my painting shirt, which still had tiny, Dali-esque splatters along the collar, cuffs and front.
     I was not surprised that my family didn’t arrange the necessary house makeover and repairs until after I left. Freshly painted, the place looked spick and span again and ready for the new tenants. Kellynch was full of memories of happier days.
    You could practically smell the cloying sweetness of money in the damp Victorian hallway near the family portrait, which had been covered with a cloth. I breathed out heavily, determined not to cry anymore.  I’d tried to slip out of the old house days ago, along the hedges of the flowers and fruit trees my grandmother had planted, but once again, I was dragged back. 
     I went outside and sat on the front porch, waiting for Liz to arrive (late as usual), and then I decided to go for a walk to clear my head. I knew I’d probably never live here again, certainly not as a tenant, much less the owner. I wanted to remember the sea air and the sand between my toes.
    The visitors, the family who wished to lease the home, were to arrive at midday to exchange contracts and keys. I wasn’t sure why an estate agent wasn’t employed but suddenly Liz was on a savings drive and had decided to deliver the paperwork herself.  She assured me the new tenants would, “look after the house as if it were their own.”
    I glanced at the contract but their surname, Croft, didn’t ring a bell. The family were obviously not locals
     I couldn’t breathe that afternoon as I waited. It had been half an hour, already. Bored, I found my old swimsuit in a box and decided to go swimming.  By then Liz had texted me to apologise for the delay.
    I dived right into the pool. The water folded into my arms, sublime, drowning my memories – but not quite. The memory of Ben and the reality of my life now was way too clear. Stupid, stupid girl I was, letting myself be talked out of marrying Ben when I was eighteen, being convinced that hesitation would just mean delay. The idea that marrying the man I loved would be the answer to my dreams was so yesterday I nearly laughed. It was such an old fashioned notion to think that any other person had the power to fix your life, let alone a man, yet I felt I was being treated badly by my family because I had no one to stick up for me. Well then, I knew I’d have to stand tall and stand up for myself. 
   “If he loves you, he will wait for you, it will all work out,” Elizabeth had assured me. I wouldn’t have taken advice solely from her but my sisters had agreed. Somehow my Godmother and sisters convinced me that if Ben was more than a passing fantasy, our love would stay strong and survive distance. My father, of course, had shown his true feelings from the beginning.
    “Besides”, my father had said, “any happiness between you and the Wentworth boy is sure to be short lived because truly, what are his prospects? Don’t you realize how hard it is not just to be accepted into pilot training but then to complete it?”
   “Of course, he’d have to become an officer first,” Melissa interjected with a raised eyebrow, as if that was impossible.
    My Godmother assured me if I could wait, so would he.
    How wrong could they have been? I had not heard from Ben since the day I’d refused his proposal. Yet I still wore the plain gold band he’d enclosed with the note, around a fine chain on my neck. I always tucked it into my collars, though, so no one ever saw it.
    Eleanor and the others had been so wrong. My hesitancy caused him to doubt my love. I had loved Ben more than words could say and here he was, returning home for the summer, an officer and a gentleman. He made the boys I’d met since look dull and average by comparison. 
    But no one forced me to do what I did. Not really.
    Hadn’t I thought, deep down, that I was unprepared to be someone’s wife, to wholly belong to anyone until I belonged to myself?
     “You have no sense of your own power,” Jenny had told me once and she was right. All I’d felt, in relation to my family, was the lack of it. 
     But what was worse, I had no sense of self-worth, and I’d spent years searching for it. Doing good works for others, looking after other people’s children might be a worthy occupation but how did it compare to having your own? And the only person I’d ever envisaged doing that with, was Ben. And now he was gone. And yes, I was still young but when you’ve lost the man you love all you feel is the distance of years spread out like an endless, empty road.
      I had loved Ben with all my soul but I’d let him go. Now he was sure to be tied to another. In many ways, because of my hesitancy, I felt I’d deserved this half-world that was my life.
     As I stood on the edge of the diving board, the higher one, the one I never climbed because heights scared me, I shivered. I could feel my hair dripping down my back. I lay down and closed my eyes. I rolled and felt almost light in the sun, faintly off balance, when a hand grabbed my elbow as I opened my eyes. I looked up, closer to the edge and saw Liz’s face.
    “Are you alright?” My sister asked me. Liz was standing on the steps peering over at me through dark sunglasses.  
    “Yes,” I lied. “I was just getting some sun.”
     Liz shook her head.
    “You were miles away, you looked like you were about to roll off the edge of the diving board, eyes closed. I know you are scared of standing up in high places but this is ridiculous. I was yelling at you to come down. It’s not safe up here. The workmen are returning tomorrow to fix the slide. C’mon Jane, the new tenants will be here in twenty minutes, help me clear out the last of the boxes.”
    She offered me her hand and I took it. Women like my sister Elizabeth acted on instinct. They looked after themselves first, knowing that if they didn’t, they might be left out in the cold. Women like Elizabeth would never become women like me.
   If only I’d been that much of a realist, with an iron grip survival instinct. I wouldn’t be the sort of person who almost fell off the edge of a diving board because her head was somewhere in the clouds. 
   I heard my Godmother arriving from next door. “Good news, Jane,” She exclaimed.   “I mean, that the beach house has been leased.”
  “Yes,” I said hesitantly.
   “Oh, I’m sorry. I know it has been your home for the last few years but you are always welcome to stay with me until you are… on your feet again.”
   “Thanks Eleanor,” I replied with a smile. I knew my Godmother meant well, but I’d already promised both Liz and Melissa I’d stay with them. “I’m fine,” I added as I walked back through the sitting room. Sarah Croft, our new tenant, had arrived.  Her name didn’t mean anything to me, but her face looked vaguely familiar.
    “She’s way famous,” Liz whispered as she hurried downstairs. “She’s on that soap, you know, the one that was filmed in Malibu with all of those glamorous people.”
     I couldn’t resist a pause as I walked towards the doorway where Sarah stood, admiring the view. Sarah Croft was Ben’s (now) married sister. Formerly Sarah Wentworth, she’d taken her husband’s name.
    She turned, looked up, smiled at me and said, “Hi, haven’t we met before?”
    “I ...knew your family,” I stammered. Elizabeth looked surprised. I wanted to add, “but we only met once over a family dinner as teenagers.” I remembered how warm and welcoming the Wentworths were back then and the delicious food Mrs Wentworth had cooked. Instead, I said nothing. I’d been erased from Ben’s life as easily as our maid removed dust from the window ledge I’d once crawled out of when I was three.
     I shivered and pulled my sweater close. My hair was still wet.  
     “I knew I’d seen you before,” Sarah said with a smile.
     “I… I’ve seen you on television as well,” I stumbled, sounding not much more than pathetic.
     “Oh, that show,” she said, dismissively, “I think being a mom suits me more than the world of show biz,” she laughed as her young son came running into the room.
     I smiled.
    “Don’t worry,” she joked. “He’s usually very well behaved,” she added as she wandered through the hall to contain her son while her husband talked with Liz outside and signed the paperwork, taking possession of the keys. 
    “I knew your brother once,” I said suddenly.
    “Oh,” she replied, then she smiled. “Oh, now I remember you coming over for dinner when my family lived in Los Angeles.”
     She paused, picked up Max and changed the subject. “Well, thank you so much for renting out your beautiful house. My husband… is working all summer on a movie and this place is exactly what I needed.”
      I paused, “Uh huh…”
      “I felt overwhelmed with my acting schedule and I needed a vacation, just to be a mom. It’s nice to have a break. But I never would have known about this place. My brother told me about it. Ben is so thoughtful like that. He read the notice online. Of course, we knew the town but not this particular area. Ben really is the kindest, best man I know, apart from my father and husband, of course.”
     I smiled. I knew of Ben’s inherent kindness. It was a great attribute that I missed every day. I couldn’t help but be mildly annoyed that Ben was inadvertently responsible for my current situation.
     “I remember now, you were both childhood friends.”
     “We went to Hallowed Halls together.”
     “I missed all of that. I was away at college.”
     “Oh,” was all I said.
      Sarah clearly had no idea about the extent of our relationship. It was probably better that way.
      She continued, “I left college to go into showbiz when I got that series at eighteen, so this is a chance for Ben and I to hang out together before he starts his pilot training programme, in Texas.”
     “Right,” I nodded.
    “We’re having a bonfire party this weekend. You and your family must come. I’m sure Ben would love to see you.”
      Before I could reply my sister called out from beyond the porch.
      I went to leave then hesitated.
     “I’ll try to come. By the way, look after the house. It’s my favorite place,” I said softly, and then I walked outside to the car.
      The weather had turned. I told myself as the young couple and their son took possession of Kellynch that I was glad to be returning to Bel Air, but it wasn’t true.